Nigeria, one-third larger than Texas and the most populous country in Africa, is situated on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. Its neighbors are Benin, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. The lower course of the Niger River flows south through the western part of the country into the Gulf of Guinea. Swamps and mangrove forests border the southern coast; inland are hardwood forests.
Multiparty government transitioning from military to civilian rule.
The first inhabitants of what is now Nigeria were thought to have been the Nok people (500 BC–c. AD 200). The Kanuri, Hausa, and Fulani peoples subsequently migrated there. Islam was introduced in the 13th century, and the empire of Kanem controlled the area from the end of the 11th century to the 14th.
The Fulani empire ruled the region from the beginning of the 19th century until the British annexed Lagos in 1851 and seized control of the rest of the region by 1886. It formally became the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914. During World War I, native troops of the West African frontier force joined with French forces to defeat the German garrison in Cameroon.
Independent Nigeria Faces Ethnic Conflicts
On Oct. 1, 1960, Nigeria gained independence, becoming a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and joining the United Nations. Organized as a loose federation of self-governing states, the independent nation faced the overwhelming task of unifying a country with 250 ethnic and linguistic groups.
Rioting broke out in 1966, and military leaders, primarily of Ibo ethnicity, seized control. In July, a second military coup put Col. Yakubu Gowon in power, a choice unacceptable to the Ibos. Also in that year, the Muslim Hausas in the north massacred the predominantly Christian Ibos in the east, many of whom had been driven from the north. Thousands of Ibos took refuge in the eastern region, which declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967. Civil war broke out. In Jan. 1970, after 31 months of civil war, Biafra surrendered to the federal government.
Military Coups Shift Power
Gowon's nine-year rule was ended in 1975 in a bloodless coup that made Army Brig. Muritala Rufai Mohammed the new chief of state. The return of civilian leadership was established with the election of Alhaji Shehu Shagari as president in 1979. An oil boom in the 1970s buoyed the economy and by the 1980s, Nigeria was considered an exemplar of African democracy and economic well-being.
The military again seized power in 1984, only to be followed by another military coup the following year. Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida announced that the country would be returned to civilian rule, but after the presidential election of June 12, 1993, he voided the results. Nevertheless, Babangida did resign as president in August. In November the military, headed by defense minister Sani Abacha, seized power again.
Corruption and notorious governmental inefficiency as well as a harshly repressive military regime characterized Abacha's reign over this oil-rich country, turning it into an international pariah. A UN fact-finding mission in 1996 reported that Nigeria's “problems of human rights are terrible and the political problems are terrifying.” During the 1970s, Nigeria had the 33rd highest per capita income in the world, but by 1997 it had dropped to the 13th poorest. The hanging of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 because he protested against the government was condemned around the world.
West African Superpower
As leader of the multination peacekeeping force ECOMOG, Nigeria established itself as West Africa's superpower, intervening militarily in the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone. But Nigeria's costly war efforts were unpopular with its own people, who felt Nigeria's limited economic resources were being unnecessarily drained.
Abacha died of a heart attack in 1998 and was succeeded by another military ruler, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, who pledged to step aside for an elected leader by May 1999. The suspicious death of opposition leader Mashood Abiola, who had been imprisoned by the military ever since he legally won the 1993 presidential election, was a crushing blow to democratic proponents. In Feb. 1999, free presidential elections led to an overwhelming victory for Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, a former member of the military elite who was imprisoned for three years for criticizing the military rule. Obasanjo's commitment to democracy, his anticorruption drives, and his desire to recover billions allegedly stolen by the family and cronies of Abacha initially gained him high praise from the populace as well as the international community. But within two years, the hope of reform seemed doomed as economic mismanagement and rampant corruption persisted. Obasanjo's priorities in 2001 were epitomized by his plans to build a $330 million national soccer stadium, an extravagance that exceeded the combined budget for both health and education. In April 2003, he was reelected.
Religion and Fighting Threaten Nigeria's Stability
Nigeria's stability has been repeatedly threatened by fighting between fundamentalist Muslims and Christians over the spread of Islamic law (sharia) across the heavily Muslim north. One-third of Nigeria's 36 states is ruled by sharia law. More than 10,000 people have died in religious clashes since military rule ended in 1999.
In 2003, after religious and political leaders in the Kano region banned polio immunization—contending that it sterilized girls and spread HIV—an outbreak of polio spread through Nigeria, entering neighboring countries the following year. The Kano region lifted its ten-month ban against vaccination in July 2004. On Aug. 24, there were 602 polio cases worldwide, 79% of which were in Nigeria.
Since 2004, insurgency has wreaked havoc in the Niger delta, Nigeria's oil-producing region. The desperately impoverished local residents of the delta have seen little benefit from Nigeria's vast oil riches, and rebel groups are fighting for a more equal distribution of the wealth as well as greater regional autonomy. Violence by rebel groups has disrupted oil production and reduced output by about 20%. Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers and supplies the U.S. with one-fifth of its oil.
In Aug. 2006 Nigeria handed over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon, in compliance with a 2002 World Court ruling.
Corruption and Violence Taint Democratic Elections
April 2007 national elections—the country’s first transition from one democratically elected president to another—were marred by widespread allegations of fraud, ballot stuffing, violence, and chaos. Just days before the election, the Supreme Court ruled that the election commission’s decision to remove from the ballot Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a leading candidate and a bitter rival of President Olusegun Obsanjo, was illegal. Ballots were reprinted, but they only showed party symbols rather than the names of candidates. Umaru Yar’Adua, the candidate of the governing party, won the election in a landslide, taking more than 24.6 million votes. Second-place candidate Muhammadu Buhari tallied only about 6 million votes. International observers called the vote flawed and illegitimate. The chief observer for the European Union said the results “cannot be considered to have been credible.” An election tribunal ruled in Feb. 2008 that although the election was indeed flawed, the evidence of rigging was not substantial enough to overturn the election results.
The rebel group in Nigeria's oil-producing region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, declared a cease-fire in September. Since the insurgency broke out in 2004, Nigeria's oil production has been significantly reduced, from about 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.5 million.
Deadly violence broke out in July 2009 in northeastern Nigeria between government troops and an obscure fundamentalist sect, Boko Haram, which is opposed to Western education and seeks to have Sharia law implemented throughout the country. The group's name translates to "Western education is sinful." As many as 1,000 civilians died in the battles. The fighting began after militants attacked police stations and seemed to be preparing for a pitched religious war against the government. The police, followed by the army, retaliated and unleashed a five-day assault against the sect. The group's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in the campaign and the group was nearly decimated.
President Umaru Yar'Adua took ill in November 2009 and traveled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, a zoologist, took over as acting president in Feb. 2010. He dissolved his cabinet in March. The move was widely considered an attempt to establish authority over the country. President Yar'Adua died in May, and Jonathan, who is from the mainly Christian south, assumed the presidency.
Sectarian violence broke out in the city of Jos, which is located in Plateau state between the country's Muslim north and Christian south, in Jan. 2010. At least 325 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the fighting. Another round of violence occurred in Jos in March. The victims were mostly Christians who were hacked to death in their sleep. Local officials suspected the attackers were seeking revenge for the murders in January. The number of fatalities ranged from 200 to 500.
Jonathan prevailed in presidential elections in April 2011, taking about 60% of the vote. He defeated Muhammadu Buhari, the former military ruler who is from the Muslim north. International observers deemed the elections fair–the cleanest in decades. The milestone was somewhat marred after the election, however, as Buhari's supporters in the north violently protested the results.
President Relents on Ending Oil Subsidies
In January 2012, in an effort to repair its tattered economy, President Jonathan eliminated the country's fuel subsidy, which costs the government about $8 billion a year. The move caused fuel and food prices to double. Streets protests and strikes broke out all over the country, and Jonathan relented and partially reinstated the subsidy. Nigeria produces two million barrels of crude oil a day, but because of inadequate refineries—the result of poor management and corruption, the country exports most of the crude and imports gas. A series of corrupt governments has profited handsomely by the oil sales while about 75% of the country lives in extreme poverty.
Government Cracks Down on Islamist Militants in the North
Boko Haram, the fundamentalist Islamist sect that many thought had been obliterated in 2009, made a resurgence in 2011. In fact, the group, which had previously launched attacks locally, emerged as a transnational force possibly linked to al-Qaeda in 2011. It launched nearly daily deadly attacks in 2011, including one on the UN headquarters in August in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, that killed 24 people. On Christmas Day, the sect claimed responsibility for a series of bombings near churches that killed at least 40 people. The government declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria and dispatched troops to the region, where the group is based. Boko Haram continued its assault on the Lake Chad basin area in the north throughout 2012, prompting retaliatory attacks but government troops.
Fierce—and brutal—fighting between the militants and soldiers in April 2013 in Baga, a fishing village on Lake Chad, left as many as 200 civilians dead and 2,275 homes destroyed. Both sides accused each other of setting homes on fire. The government came under fire for its scorched-earth tactics. In May, the government declared a state of emergency in the northern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, where Boko Haram has been most actively launching attacks. The move allowed government troops to hold and question terror suspects. The state of emergency did not thwart the violence at the hands of Boko Haram. In July, the government closed secondary schools in Yobe after 22 students were killed in attack attributed to the militants. Another massacre in Borno claimed nearly 90 lives in September. The military inaccurately reported it had killed Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, in August.
A split emerged in the governing People's Democratic Party (PDP) in August over President Jonathan's plans to potentially run for reelection in 2015. He had previously vowed to sit out the election. The decision angered members of his party from the north, and they formed the the New PDP. Vice President Atiku Abubakar, 22 of PDP's 50 senators, and several state governors joined the new faction. In the midst of the political turmoil, Jonathan fired nine of his cabinet ministers, saying he wanted to "refocus his government, to inject in fresh blood to achieve greater service delivery to the people of Nigeria."
Ban on Same-Sex Marriages Sparks Homophobic Violence
On Jan. 7, 2014, President Jonathan, signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law. While homosexual sex has been illegal in Nigeria for generations, the law was only haphazardly enforced. The new legislation has far greater reach; calling for 10 to 14-year prison sentences for offenders and harsh punishments for those who support them. Mob violence directed against dozens believed to be gay has erupted; international community decries "homosexual roundup."
Boko Haram Massacres Hundreds of Civilians
Boko Haram was responsible for the brutal deaths of more than 400 people in and around Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria in February and early March 2014. Among its victims were children watching a soccer match and dozens of male students at a public college in Yobe State, many of whom were burned or shot to death. The group was also blamed for a rush-hour bomb set off in April at a bus station in Nyanya, a city on the outskirts of the capital, Abuja, that killed more than 70 people.
In April, the group kidnapped about 280 girls from a school in the northeast with the intention of making the girls sex slaves. The mass kidnapping—and the government's slow response and inept attempts to rescue them—sparked international outrage and anti-government protests in Nigeria. A social media campaign sparked widespread news coverage of the kidnappings and put pressure on Jonathan to take action against Boko Haram.
In a videotaped message released in early May, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, said the group planned to sell the abducted girls and threatened to "give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves. We would marry them out at the age of 9. We would marry them out at the age of 12." He also reiterated the group's core belief that Western education is a sin.
The U.S. sent a team from the State Department, the F.B.I. and the Pentagon, 80 troops, and manned and unmanned surveillance drones to Nigeria in May to help to locate the girls. Another 68 girls were kidnapped in June in Borno state; 63 of the girls escaped weeks later.
While the world was focused on the search for the girls, violence attributed to Boko Haram continued. About 100 people were killed in a suicide attack in Jos and dozens more died in a series of attacks on villages in May. The violence continued into the summer, with the military stepping up its attacks on the group. In late June, a bomb attributed to Boko Haram killed about two dozen people in Abuja, the capital. The attack on the city, which is located in central Nigeria, revealed that the group is extending its reach outside its stronghold in the north. About 500 soldiers escaped to neighboring Cameroon in late August after coming under attack by Boko Haram. By early September, the group had captured Gwoza, Gamboru Ngala, Banki, and Bama, towns all located in Borno state near the border with Cameroon. Boko Haram also declared parts of Borno a caliphate. The advances sparked fears that Boko Haram could move in on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno.
In early November, the government announced it had begun to negotiate a cease-fire agreement with Boko Haram, which included the release of the kidnapped girls. Abubakar Shekau, the group's leader, however, denied the claim, and said the girls had converted to Islam and had been "married off."
The group continued to seize cities in the northeast and by early December, had taken control of many cities that surround Maiduguri. It also launched several suicide attacks in Maiduguri and other cities, which killed several hundred people. In the absence of effective government troops, civilian militias began to pop up to fight Boko Haram.
In January 2015, Boko Haram took over Baga, the only major town in Borno state to resist being taken over by the group. News reports said the militants burned the city to the ground and massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens, making it one of the most deadly assaults by Boko Haram. Goodluck Jonathan was widely cricized for not condemning the attack, and his silence may be met with dissent from voters in February's presidential elections. About 8,000 troops from Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin were dispatched to Nigeria to battle the terrorists.
A report released by Amnesty International in June 2015 said the military is responsible for the deaths of more than 8,000 men and boys through extrajudicial executions, torture, starvation, and other forms of ill treatment at detention facilities. The report said the alleged atrocities, which it said constitute war crimes, took place in northeast Nigeria during the army's campaign against Boko Haram.
An outbreak of Ebola hit Nigeria in the summer of 2014. By September, is estimated to have killed eight people in Nigeria, and there were 19 confirmed cases of it in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is the worst outbreak since the virus was first identified almost 40 years ago. Nigeria successfully contained the virus, and by the end of October, the World Health Organization declared the country free of Ebola.
President Jonathan Ousted at the Ballot Box
Nigeria's election commission postponed for six weeks presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 14 after the military said it could not protect voters in the northeast from Boko Haram. Some questioned if the decision was influenced by President Jonathan, whose victory was by no means guaranteed. Indeed, he faced a strong challenge from Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator who was behind a 1983 coup. Buhari prevailed in the March 2015 election, which was largely peaceful. Jonathan's defeat was attributed to his failure to defeat Boko Haram and his inability to crack down on endemic corruption. Jonathan accepted the loss, making for a smooth transfer of power—the first between civilians from different parties.
Buhari fired his top military leaders in July 2015, citing the military's ineffective response to Boko Haram and alleged human rights violations—the use of torture, starvation, and ill treatment at detention facilities—during its campaign against Boko Haram.
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Nigeria
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